- Beautifully situated, between High Exmoor and Devon farmland
- Interesting creatures hanging around the tower
- Lovely stonework
- One of the best early 18th century interiors in the England
- Box pews, pulpit and layout unaltered from the early 1700s
- Some seriously impressive 17th and 18th century wall memorials
- A beautiful 1650-80 little Ascension scene
- A small but good selection of stained glass
- An extremely gorgeous and nationally important church
Molland on the borders
This little critter has been high on Mollland tower since the 1400s… except it is not just one little critter, it is seemingly two. See that face looking down between its legs?
Suddenly the whole carving explodes with significance, shockingly so. Is there a sexual element to it? Or what? It is certainly not unusual for a raunchy carving on a church to show an ankle or even a bucketload of lewdness, and this surely could be going in that direction.
But it certainly was not to entertain the parishioners. It is a nightmare whose details cannot be seen from the ground, a ‘grotesque’ (or a ‘babewyn’ as they were called) full of demonic power, a chaotic confusion that not only served to trap and contain the powers of evil but more…
Because it was also outside the realm of normal humanity, it was on the border of our reality and that of the other world, where demons and angels lived as well as God.
Molland Church of St Mary
And they were here also because the church itself occupied this marginal space, hovering between the Divine and the human worlds, where parishioners can dream about God, angels and demons, and where far more importantly God dreams about us; all we can become, all we can be, all we are now…
Catching a mere wee glimpse of this Divine dream frees floods of awe and joy, overflowing souls, loving all, scattering kindnesses, changing the world one heart at a time… for some or for all.
And here in this extraordinary House of God way up in the clouds on the slopes of Exmoor, true borderlands between the wild moors and the bounty of Devon’s fertile fields, there is a wonder awaiting us.
But first the outside…
It is a wonderfully coloured church, all that rust red and grey, happily ensconced in its hillside graveyard. Been here a long time too; mostly fifteenth century with evidence of an earlier one on this spot.
The west door gloriously
A rough little thing too. The weathering door and eroding stone, with that somewhat clumsy attempt at a relieving arch above the carved doorway surround.
Old stone, old wood, old magic… gets me every time.
The wonderful interior of Molland church
Yet inside it is an ocean of deeply browned woods lapping against gentle cliffs of crooked walls, softly whispering hello from the eighteenth century. It is, to say it again, extraordinary.
Box pews they are called, because, well, they are pews in boxes, and they have hardly been touched since the artisan put the last finishing touches to them back in the early eighteenth century.
Sitting in them (please do) is like entering a mild sensory deprivation tank. The sides come up to chins, to eyes, to hair, cutting off everything apart from the light, the Ten Commandment Boards and Royal of Arms in front, that pulpit over there in the north aisle on the left and the deep shaded browns of the oak panels.
And just as a church is a soft border, a liminal space, between the Divine and the human, so this space is a soft border between the eighteenth century folks and us. Ghosts cluster here.
Oh and that Royal coat of arms up there? That is where all Royal coats of arms were meant to be originally, taking the place of Christ after the Reformation. By edict. As in a ‘All your congregations belong to me’ kind of edict.
Hey ho. Humans, eh?
The delight of box pews
But back to the box pews.
Each box was likely owned, rented annually and or actually belonged to a farmhouse or a family. Sometimes they could be inherited along with the property, and passed down through the generations.
But this was not a cunning plan by the church to exploit the congregation; the parishioners themselves organised the building of these, they had responsibility for this area of the church, and all moneys received went towards the parish; looking after the poor as well as the building.
But why build them? After all, there would have been older sixteenth century benches here anyway.
Well, who wants to park their bum on 200 year old benches is one. ‘We want modern and we want it now!’ said no twenty-first century church nerd ever, but hey, cultural differences.
Then comfort. Services had become nearly 2 hours long, and folk were expected to attend two on Sundays, and sermons could be an hour or more. A cushion or three, even upholstery, maybe a little brazier, rugs, snacks, a tipple or more, purely for medicinal purposes of course, all these helped create a cosy little space protected from drafts by the high sides.
There are even pegs inside to hang their hats on.
Box pews reflecting the new society
But there is more, much more.
Society had changed, there were more opportunities, a new world was forming and different economic classes were being created.
And this was a relatively recent phenomenon. When the first benches were placed here in the sixteenth century it did not exist in such a complexity.
But this was not yet a consumer society, so folk could not show their class bondings by their spending habits. The community was still the church, especially out here in the deep rural.
So the church wardens along with the parishioners privatised spaces in the church, building these box pews and renting or selling them, with the ones near the front being more expensive and going to those higher up the social pole.
And as the nave belonged to the parish, this decision would have had next to nothing to do with the priest or the church, it was just a way to keep folk happy and to have the nave reflect society.
Except for one thing…
A ginormous pulpit
A humongous pulpit. Oh yes. A real biggie where the vicar could totally rock out. A triple decker as we say in the trade.
The Rev would sit below for the service readings, the parish clerk would be on the right, and the Rev again popped up to the top tier for his sermonising, with that ginormous sounding board above to bounce his dulcet voice all over the church.
Right in the middle of his flock. That is important that is. Just like Jesus. Not in the chancel behind a big screen.
Da Rev was in da house.
Thundering, whispering, encouraging, cajoling, demanding, loving… teaching the word of God amongst his folk.
From that gorgeously crafted pulpit, washing over the seas of browns and angles, with the faithful floating in its embrace.
The chancel is little thing, hardly used at all in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just a table for Communion four times a year.
But most chancels or sanctuaries normally pay lip service at least to the idea that the altar is yer main man; after all, it is a church.
Here, not so much.
The Berry Monument
This hugely entertaining, and huge, memorial totally overshadows the altar and anyone near it. It is a marvellous beast, mainly in original colours, a beautiful creation.
Especially the theatrical presentation of the inscription, as if it is on a stage with the curtains drawn back, surely highlights it even when surrounded by all the other wonderful busy-ness.
And they say that revenge is a dish best served cold, and this is ice cold, ice, ice cold, baby, with slivers of razor sharp icicles on the side.
It is dedicated to the vicar here, Daniel Berry who died in 1654 when Britain was ruled by the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell and his lads; Danny boy became the vicar in 1626, taking over from his dad, and was quite a Royalist, an anti-Oliver Cromwell.
But the Royalists lost the Civil war, a far more Puritan form of Christian worship was introduced and, as ever, the aftermath of this civil war was not pretty.
Daniel refused to sign up to the new worship, so he was turfed out penniless in 1646, losing his possessions which included nine packhorse loads of books. Boy that must have hurt so bad.
He died in deep poverty aged 45, surely a death hastened by his treatment.
Revenge for a father? Forgiveness of sins?
One of his sons, John, who was eleven when Dad was dispossessed, never gave up. He joined the navy, the only branch of the services that promoted folk by ability, not by social rank or money (Papa buying you a captaincy of a warship is a really, really, very bigly bad idea for the ship and its crew).
John rose to become Admiral Sir John Berry and in 1664 created this admirable memorial to his Dad here, right in the chancel, some beautiful family love-vibes for sure and also a massive drive-by on the parish I suggest. ‘You lost, the Rev is back’ being one of the messages I am hearing.
Was there a dedication, a special service? And did Sir John blame the parish for his father’s death, turning up in full regalia to stare his father’s murderers-by-proxy full in the face? How much of that eleven year old lad, wrenched from his life and seeing his father droop and die, was still in Sir John’s heart, hurting and traumatised?
And how much did this action, this commemoration of his love and regard for this father, right here in the enemy’s citadel, placing it next to the altar to the gentle man who preached infinite love, how much did it cure his heart?
Boy, that is one complicated question with no answer, and yet I venture the size and the placement of this beauty along with the back story does invite the query.
Another gorgeous monument
Mind you, Sir John seems to have started a Baroque memorial arms race in this church, as there are three more massive darlings, all mighty impressive and a great deal of fun.
This one from around 1684 is for the Courtenay family, the local big landowners, and is a grand contrast to Daniel’s. That rectangular centre gives a resting space for the eyes while it takes in all the outer curves and twirls, while Danny’s is just full in your face frills and frolics.
The Courtenay coat of arms
The detailing is a beauty too here with the family coat of arms and crest, those golden flowers on each side, the feathers, and the nicely discreet skulls. Lovely work.
A beautiful Resurrection carving
And this charm, from another memorial.
Clumsy, naive, rustic? Oh yes indeedy, and is it not all the better for all that? ’Tis only highfalutin Londoners who think those are nasty words. Down here we wear them with pride, along with honest, heartfelt and modest. Them will do us.
It is the Ascension of Christ, with the apostles watching Christ ascend into heaven, and, delightfully, it does not belong here. It has been added later.
Paul Fitzsimmons, an expert on old Devon carving, says
This work looks just like the North Devon plaster overmantels and ceilings and it looks to be circa 1650 – 1680.
So this has been moved from elsewhere in the church or donated from outside.
Lucky Molland. Lucky us.
An instant of history
There are more wonders here, but always we come back to the whole interior.
It truly is extraordinary, catching a moment of Puritan worship, laid out according to how they saw the Divine, and just so affecting. It breathes commitment and deep faith, whilst creating such wonderful artistry in the woodwork and memorials, all deeply, passionately felt.
Living in the borderlands
And coming back to the borderland, it is here, between the parishioners and us, between a twenty-nine year old Admiral and his eleven year old traumatised self, between the lad who saw his Dad wither and die and the man who could show his love so fully, between those who wanted the priest to preach the Word only and those who wanted ritual, between this complicated, sinful world and the path of Grace and Love hand in hand with the Divine…
All here, on the edge of the world, twixt the greenery and the moorland, where we can sit quietly if we so choose and explore our own personal borderlands…
Or just gaze at the astounding without from the extraordinary within.